“The Great Flood,” the latest documentary from found-footage impresario Bill Morrison, revisits the catastrophic 1927 event that inundated an area of some 27,000 miles along the Mississippi. Morrison incorporates nitrate deterioration into his work’s very structure, so that the washed-out, shimmery grayness of the floodlands seems to penetrate the film stock itself. The water imagery, with its sinuous flow, casual surrealism and dreamlike, ominous quality, underscored by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s bluesy, elegiac score, slowly reveals a racial divide eerily similar to the one informing Spike Lee’s magisterial Katrina doc “When the Levees Broke.” An art piece, a sociopolitical document and a musical meditation, “Flood” should strike chords with niche audiences.
For much of the film, newsreel cameras capture the flood’s devastation. In some places, only the tops of trees visibly break the gleaming gray expanse of the water. In other places, partially submerged businesses still function just above the waterline. A bedraggled dog finds precarious purchase on a floating piece of tin; a couple waves from atop their car moments before it is swept downstream; tent cities spring up on isolated hillocks.
In a curious insert, Morrison sets countless pages of a 1927 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog flashing by in dizzying, rapid-fire succession. It’s a pyrotechnic display of the casual affluence reigning elsewhere during these Roaring ’20s, and a more creative, contemporaneous indicator of the times than seen in most era-in-a-nutshell montages.
Each section of the film, introduced by chapter headings and separated by fades-to-black, inches toward its own disintegration as the film stock becomes progressively distorted, stippled or bordered with black striations. It’s no surprise that the director of “Decasia,” that acclaimed paean to the beauty of decomposing silver nitrate, should be fascinated by the imagery’s erosion, but in this context, the film’s ability to resist the forces of entropy takes on a peculiar mournful resonance.
Although almost entirely exposition-free, with only the scantest introductory historical note, a submerged narrative begins to surface. Differences in how blacks and whites are treated accumulate a collective weight: Rowboats rescue white families one at a time while blacks are picked up en masse, and accommodations for evacuees differ significantly.
A section titled “Sharecroppers” follows black field workers through the entire process of cotton harvesting — picking cotton overseen by white men on horses, riding in wagons full of bulging sacks, and manually rolling heavy bales onto and off ships. Another segment, “Levees,” shows blacks forced at gunpoint to endlessly fill up sandbags at riverbanks in a futile attempt to hold back the tide. The visits of various portly, cigar-smoking politicos — among them a post-presidential William Howard Taft, hobnobbing with wizened black survivors for photo ops — plays like a caricature of things to come.
The flooding of the cotton fields and utter destruction of poorly constructed homes triggered a mass migration of blacks from the South to the North; extended clips show them loading their few salvageable possessions onto railroad freight cars and flatbeds. The film ends with a long parade of African-Americans, spiffy in their stylish Sunday best, exiting a Northern church, far from the scruffy poverty down South.
Morrison has always closely collaborated with musicians, but here the helmer goes one better, making music the ultimate product of the Great Flood. The film’s intricate sound/image mix (conceptualized during Morrison and Frisell’s voyage down a providentially swollen Mississippi) comes full circle with the inclusion of footage of indomitable black musicians, their names spelled out onscreen, strumming guitars or pounding pianos in makeshift camps, while Frisell’s score incorporates the profound changes jazz would undergo on its voyage North.